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We can live with grace like Orpha; The Life I Really Lived, by Jessamyn West. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

The title of Jessamyn West's new novel, "The Life I Really Lived," is incomplete. It should read: "The Life I Really Lived -- and Survived." Not only survived, but triumphed.

The novel will surely comfort many older generation American women who, like its heroine, Orpha Chase, grew up amid many kinds of sexual violence and were often its object without being allowed to think of themselves as victims or expect much better.

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This is sometimes the way life is, Orpha seems to say. We live at risk, love and nurture where we can, keep believing in God and goodness, and worry not about how people see us but how we really are -- in our souls. Then, however sordid the seeming circumstances, we can live as Orpha does, with grace.

This is not an easy theme. Orpha Chase is very candid in her "confessional." As a now- successful novelist, greatly admired and looked upon as an unworldly, deeply religious, happily married woman, she rips away this mask to deliberately reveal the "true" experience in her flawed life.

Her first marriage, for love, ends in the tragic murder-suicide of her husband and a young man whom he loved. Her second marriage, for security, leads her into a love affair, as does the magnetism of a movie star later in her life.

Still, Orpha ultimately finds true love and the happiest of marriages. She concludes that "after all the pain and stupidity and cruelty in my life, I found that love sanctifies."

She asks how they ever found each other, and her adoring husband replies, "Providence . . . and a good woman's pertinacity." She accepts his word, "pertinacity," for "mulishness" -- one of her favorite characteristics -- but his word "good," after what she confessed "in those 500 pages" of her book, reduces her to tears.

This is one of many tender moments in the book. No one can fault Jessamyn West as a storyteller who can move her readers. But there are a flew flaws. Though everyone loves a happy ending, the millions of Orphas who are alone in their senior years may ask: Is the answer to finding joy always (or only) through romance?

And the author's smug and scolding asides to the younger generation seem out of place. She feels their quest for love centers too much on sex without a search for larger truths. I would quarrel with this assumption, though an Orpha secure in late-love might think this way, not knowing or seeing how much like herself today's young women really are.

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There is a whole generation of young people who have in them "the bubble of joy I had in my chest and that I called 'the presence of God," as Orpha says: couples who study the Bible daily as she did, and for whom phrases such as Praise God, Thank God, and Help me, God, are "as natural as breathing."


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